The week in higher education – 3 December 2015

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the national press

December 3, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (3 December 2015)

A mass walkout by university students did not seem to faze columnist and provocateur Katie Hopkins. Arch-controversialist Ms Hopkins was left speaking to a half-empty lecture theatre at Brunel University London on 23 November after students walked out minutes into her talk, The Daily Telegraph reported on 26 November. The protest took place after the former Apprentice contestant was asked to participate in a debate to mark Brunel’s 50th anniversary – an invitation denounced by its students’ union as “distasteful” as Ms Hopkins’ “overtly bigoted views” add “nothing to the intellectual or academic discourse”. In a Daily Mail column on 26 November, Ms Hopkins was predictably delighted by the stunt, using it as the basis for a free-wheeling attack on closed-minded students and “Left-leaning tutors”. However, self-reflection may not be a forte of Ms Hopkins, who claimed that she been branded “racist” by students on account of her criticisms of immigration policy, rather than her use of the word “cockroaches” in April to describe migrants.

Ms Hopkins’ diatribe on defending freedom of speech wasn’t too dissimilar to comments made in a Lords debate on that very issue on 26 November. Thin-skinned students’ unions took quite a bashing from the ermine-clad peers, many of whom, like Ms Hopkins, claimed that extremist speakers were welcomed on campus, while “ridiculous” bans were imposed on sombreros, Halloween costumes and Coca-Cola. Baroness Deech, the first Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, who introduced the debate, seemed to go even further, stating that politically correct lecturers would not report would-be extremists for fear of being seen as racist. That comment was eclipsed, however, by Lord John Patten, a former Tory education secretary, who likened the anti-racism Rhodes Must Fall campaigners at the University of Oxford to Islamic State terrorists. “Pulling down a statue of [Cecil] Rhodes [would] follow what IS is doing in iconoclastically pulling down statues of which they do not approve,” he said.

Lord Patten was also critical of the University of Cambridge’s decision to “airbrush” David Starkey from its marketing campaign. The university took a fundraising video fronted by the historian offline after staff and students complained that he should not be involved because of comments he has made previously on race. However, support for the decision came from a former vice-chancellor of the University of London, Graham Zellick, who said in a letter to The Times that Cambridge was right to correct “its initial error of judgment in including him in the video”. Professor Zellick, an honorary fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, added that Dr Starkey’s public “utterances” were characterised by “ignorance, incivility, absence of thought and balance and rejection of the disinterested search for truth”.

UK students are mainly in favour of staying in the European Union, according to a poll for the Higher Education Policy Institute, but that support could be flaky. According to the poll of 1,000 students – by YouthSight Monitor – 70 per cent of full-time students in higher education said that they would vote for the UK to remain in the EU against just 13 per cent wanting to leave, The Guardian reported. However, few students showed strong enthusiasm for the issue, and nearly half said that their support depended on David Cameron’s getting “meaningful reforms” in his renegotiation talks.

A champion of electric cars has been branded “Professor Nimby” for opposing a Formula E race near his London home, The Times reported on 25 November. Paul Ekins, professor of energy and environment policy at University College London, is actually leading the campaign against the return of the electric supercar race to Battersea Park, despite his support for non-petrol automobiles, the paper said. The inaugural race in June had been “horrendous”, with 100,000 people who used the park being “seriously inconvenienced” and unable to use it for three weeks, said Professor Ekins. “It’s completely wrong to trash some local environmental asset that is of very great value to people living here and now for some putative environmental gain out in the future,” he said. He was accused of double standards by Wandsworth Council deputy leader Jonathan Cook, who said that the professor would “probably think it was all marvellous” if he lived in Hampstead.

  • Correction: The remarks made by Lord John Patten, the former Conservative education secretary, about anti-racism campaigners at the University of Oxford were incorrectly attributed to Lord Patten of Barnes, chancellor of the University of Oxford. We apologise to Lord Patten of Barnes for the mistake, which has now been corrected.

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